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  • Protesting the Privilege of PerceptionResistance to Documentary Work in Hale County, Alabama, 1900–2010
  • Scott L. Matthews (bio)

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Hale County has become indelibly linked with the work of James Agee, Walker Evans, and William Christenberry, but they were not the first—or last—to document the area. Here, for more than a century, travel writers, folklorists, journalists, photographers, and filmmakers attempted to reveal the realities of life in rural Alabama and, by extension, the South, through documentary forms of expression. Red Building in Forest, Hale County, Alabama, 1983, by William Christenberry, archival pigment print, 20 × 24˝, edition of 25

courtesy of the artist / HEMPHILL Fine Arts.

[End Page 31]

“[A]ny engagement with visuality in the present or past requires establishing its counterhistory.”

—Nicholas Mirzoeff

“The most intense point of a life, the point where life’s energy concentrates itself, is where it comes up against power, struggles with it, attempts to use its forces, or evade its traps.”

—Michel Foucault

“Since the ethnographic other can read, she now presumes to criticize her characterization and to clamour for the right to represent herself. Pity the poor ethnographer.”

—Stephen Tyler1

pride and resentment twine

Hale County, Alabama. For many, the words conjure images of Allie Mae Burroughs’s face.2 Appearing older than her twenty- seven years, she stands before an unpainted clapboard house staring straight into Walker Evans’s lens, her lips pursed and brow furrowed. Others may see a kudzu-covered country store embalmed by William Christenberry’s lush Kodachrome film. Some might hear in their heads James Agee’s often quoted archaeological list of materials he wanted to present to readers instead of words in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech . . .” For others, Hale County summons images of the Rural Studio, an innovative architectural project Samuel Mockbee started there in the early 1990s. The photographs by the Rural Studio’s photographer, Timothy Hursley, vividly depict the striking designs of houses, chapels, and community centers made of salvaged tires, hay bales, license plates, and innumerable reusable materials. A writer who visited Hale County in 2005 for a story on the Rural Studio described its landscape as if it was a gallery displaying the work of these documentary artists: “Drive through Hale County today, and Agee and Evans’ world will come to life. Broken-down pickup trucks and dusty storefronts are evidence of residents’ hardscrabble lives, eking out a living on catfish ponds and in cotton fields, in endless battles against the kudzu. Look out the car window at a freshly plowed acreage, and you’ll see Christenberry’s Rothko-like bands of brown, green and yellow glistening in the afternoon sun.”3

Photography curator and critic Thomas Southall argues that, for these artists, Hale County—“or, more accurately, the small part of it encompassing some farming families and roadside buildings in a few small towns”—has functioned as a place of creative inspiration akin to William Faulkner’s fictional “cosmos” of Yoknapatawpha County. As much as Hale County served as their “cosmos,” these documentarians also created this cosmos, granting the county, in the words of historian Alan Trachtenberg, “the status of place in American art and imagination.” Hale County has indeed become indelibly linked with the work of these three artists [End Page 32] and writers, but they were not the first—or last—to document the area. Here, for more than a century, travel writers, folklorists, journalists, photographers, and filmmakers attempted to reveal the realities of life in rural Alabama, and, by extension, the South, through documentary forms of expression. Their portrayal of the county and its people, however, contributed to a broader twentieth-century romance of the rural South that transformed the faces, landscapes, and architecture of the poor into art that resonated with educated, middle- class audiences eager to see and experience islands of vernacular beauty and authenticity in a sea of standardization. As their work circulated in books, magazines, films, and galleries, Hale...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 31-65
Launched on MUSE
2016-02-28
Open Access
No
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